Teresa Cheng takes reins as Hong Kong justice secretary with ‘prime mission’ to uphold rule of law
Arbitration legal eagle Cheng also says ‘one country, two systems’ is the most favourable and appropriate arrangement for city
A day before taking over as Hong Kong’s new justice minister, veteran barrister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah said her “prime mission” would be to uphold the rule of law in what is now the most politically charged hot seat in government.
Outgoing Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, leaving office on Saturday, declared that throughout his tenure he had acted by the book and stuck to legal principles in handling sensitive issues that earned him much criticism.
The State Council on Friday announced the formal appointment of Cheng, an arbitration expert nominated for the job by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who presented the pair to the media at her office in Admiralty.
“The prime mission of the secretary for justice is to uphold the rule of law,” Cheng said.
Referring to acrimonious debate on Hong Kong’s constitutional situation and whether its high degree of autonomy under its governing formula was being eroded by Beijing, she said: “One country, two systems is the most favourable and appropriate arrangement for Hong Kong.
“At times, people may have different views about ‘one country, two systems’ and perhaps also the Basic Law. However, if we insist on applying legal principles, objectively and rationally analysed the Basic Law, which is promulgated by the National People’s Congress and in accordance with the constitution of the PRC [People’s Republic of China], we will ultimately arrive at the same legal conclusion.”
Under the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law, Beijing guaranteed the city “a high degree of autonomy” after it was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Cheng also said her appointment was both “a great honour” as well as a “challenge”.
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She did not answer any questions, including how she would handle thorny legal cases such as those related to pro-democracy Occupy protesters and whether she had turned down the job six months ago.
Lam took most of the questions from reporters during a five-minute question-and-answer session.
The chief executive said Cheng would only take up the post from Saturday and would have a chance to talk about work plans later.
“I would not comment or disclose the process on approaching potential candidates,” Lam added.
She paid tribute to the outgoing minister for his “outstanding performance”, and praised him for being “a pillar of strength in upholding the rule of law in Hong Kong”, as well as for his “commitment to the country” and passion for his work.
“Mr Yuen has profound legal knowledge and excellent analytical power. In the face of the heavy workload and many arduous tasks during his tenure … he has taken it all in his stride and served the community selflessly with all his heart,” the city leader said.
On the new appointment, Lam said: “Ms Cheng is a seasoned senior counsel in private practice, with rich experience in international arbitration and mediation. She is a high achiever in the legal profession and communicates well with all.
“I have every confidence that she will make a very competent [secretary for justice].”
Speaking separately, Zhang Xiaoming, head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, also praised Yuen for “making significant contributions in defending Hong Kong’s rule of law, and in comprehensively and accurately implementing the ‘one country, two systems’ principle’.”
He said Yuen helped to encourage exchanges between the Hong Kong and mainland legal sectors, and boosted Hong Kong’s status as a regional hub for legal services and dispute resolution.
Cheng is “fully capable” of taking up her new role as justice secretary, Zhang said.
For his part, Yuen, referring to his resignation, said: “Making the decision not to continue as secretary for justice is not an easy one, but I believe that at different stages of life, one should do different things.”
He said there were bound to be differences of opinion over decisions he made during his term, but with hand on heart, all the ultimate ones were made in accordance with the law.
“I think in my post, my belief all along has been that we have to stick to legal principles, even though we know that some people may not like our decision,” he said.
Yuen added he was “extremely glad” about Cheng’s appointment as his successor.
“With her very extensive experience and wisdom. I have every confidence that she will perform very well.”
The Post had reported earlier that Yuen was expected to leave this month after China’s top legislative body approved the controversial joint checkpoint plan for a high-speed rail link to mainland China.
Taking up the post, Cheng – a senior counsel since 2000 and former chairwoman of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre – will be the city’s fourth justice secretary.
It had long been reported that Yuen was determined to leave the government and resume his private practice as a barrister after completing a five-year term under former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
However, Lam persuaded him to stay on to deal with the joint checkpoint arrangement, which will see national laws enforced in part of the West Kowloon terminus – leased to the mainland and deemed a mainland port area – of the express rail link.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the plan on Wednesday last week, sparking an outcry from the local legal sector including the Hong Kong Bar Association, which said it was “appalled” by the move as officials had failed to state clearly the relevant legal basis.
Speaking to the Post before Cheng’s appointment, Bar Association chairman Paul Lam Ting-kwok SC said the next justice minister should demonstrate that he or she could uphold justice and properly convey to Beijing the views of the Hong Kong people.
“Very often, people say justice not only has to be done, but must be seen to be done. I think, equally, a public officer holding such a position … must try to show the people and demonstrate to the people in a convincing way that he or she has done so,” he said, adding that this goes to the core of people’s trust and confidence.
Only when Hongkongers’ views on certain legal matters were conveyed properly could the city avoid problems arising from misunderstandings, he said.
Lawrence Lok Ying-kam SC, a top criminal barrister who rarely gives interviews, told the Post he hoped Cheng could uphold the rule of law.
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Pan-democratic lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said it did not matter who took the post as the city’s judicial system was under the influence of Beijing.
“It makes no difference as the person appointed by Beijing would never dare say no [to its request],” Lam said.
He said Cheng should take a stance by resigning when she was faced with challenges that crossed her bottom line.
The Democratic Party lawmaker also asserted that Cheng, an arbitration expert, lacked experience in criminal prosecution, which he said had been a sensitive aspect of the city’s judicial development in recent years. Government critics have argued activists were being targeted in cases related to events such as the Occupy Central movement in 2014.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said she welcomed the appointment, calling Cheng a “reasonable” individual “with integrity”, capable of handling difficult legislative tasks ahead, including local laws on the express rail “co-location” arrangement and national anthem.
Defending Cheng, the Business and Professionals Alliance lawmaker, who is an associate professor of law at City University of Hong Kong, said: “No one can be a specialist in all matters.”
She believed Cheng would be able to prove her worth.